Monthly Archives: May 2016

Opinion – What’s wrong with Stellaris’ midgame?

A big bang,

Stellarius starts with a bang.  Civilizations, with nothing more than a homeworld and a dream, expand throughout a galaxy in the hopes of becoming the next great empire.  Science ships chart unknown worlds while researchers expand the player’s technological reach.  The player runs across others and that existing scramble only intensifies to grab the few remaining systems left.  Alliances form and wars begin and suddenly it all seems…well…slow.  Boring.  Banal.  The hand off between the early game and mid game fumbles and the player pumps their legs in Wily E. Coyote fashion as their interest falls of a cliff.  What happened?

Stellaris is an example of a game with mechanics that direct the player away from the fun.  What worked so well in the beginning (or wasn’t there) now becomes a drag on the entertainment.  Let’s start with limited planets.  Stellaris limits the planets that the player directly controls to five (traits can add to this).  Every planet beyond the cap must either be turned into an AI controlled sector or acts as a serious drain on a civilization’s economy.  While this helpfully limits the micromanagement intensive planet building mechanic, it also means that the player controls the same number of resources in the early game as they do the mid and late.  Five planets is enough to power a growing empire, but a mid level empire will find itself resource constrained.  It is entirely possible to have an empire with a fleet equivalent to another empire half its size simply because they both can only directly control five planets.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the AI controlled sectors were capable or could be directed, but that is not so.  They develop slowly and without the basic building strategies that are incredibly important to intelligently developing a planet.  Resources from AI sectors increase at a snail’s pace thereby limiting consolidation and promoting stasis.  The five planet rule works in the beginning, but it can’t grow with the game.

As the universe developers, the player must interact with other civilizations.  Diplomacy could have represented a fun, mid-game mechanism to help continue the excitement.  Unfortunately, it’s designed to do the exact opposite.  The two big diplomatic achievements, alliance and federation, direct the player towards stasis.   The first, alliance, allows civilizations to come to the defense of their allies.  An alliance of smaller civilizations can face down a larger civ in a war they would otherwise lose individually.  In a more aggressive environment, this would create an ever shifting galaxy of allegiances and force the player to pay attention to their surroundings.  As it stands, the timid AI uses alliances as yet another reason not to attack.  Even worse, alliances may prevent victory for a civilization(s) that has all but won a war against an alliance.  Once interstellar diplomacy kicks off, civilizations may form alliances across the galaxy.  An empire which defeated most of an alliance may not “win” the war if enough of the losing alliance is on the other side of the galaxy and inaccessible.  Once again, Stellaris’ mid-game mechanic promotes stasis, not dynamism.

Federations don’t help either.  If an alliance endures and its members like each other, they may further integrate into a federation.  Federations are alliances under the control of a rotating president representing one of the civilizations.  If a player joins a federation, they must subordinate their military to the frightened AI until they gain control of the federation.  Presidencies last a great deal of game time resulting in a considerable delay for players who hoped to use the federation for aggressive ends.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the federation had its own mechanics, but it’s really just designed to give the player major power for a short time and then forced turtling until they rotate in again.  It’s a mechanic designed to nullify another major game mechanic for 3/4th of its duration.

The problem with Stellaris’ mid game is that one major mechanic (diplomacy) is designed to nullify another (war).  If diplomacy replace war with something interesting, this might work, but that didn’t happen.  Diplomacy just shuts war down and then does nothing new.  Planetary development might have filled the void, but the limitations on directly controlling colonies deliberately stifles that part of the game.  These issues create a boring situation where the player manages a stagnant empire with little change but the slow accumulation of tech and a death march towards the end game.  Hopefully developer Paradox will address this.

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Opinion – So you want to make an e-sports game – part 2

We’re back!  Now to conclude my evaluation of esports games.

Visual beauty is nice.  Visual clarity is mandatory.

One of the major components of esports is watching the action.  Having a pretty game can make the experience more enjoyable over a blander counterpart, but pretty visuals are unnecessary.  Fans who stick around for any length of time will become used to the appearance of a game to the point where it won’t matter much.  Instead, the most important visual aspect of an esports game is visual clarity.  At a glance, viewers should have a good idea about what is happening onscreen and how the broader game is playing out.  This allows them to follow the action and understand just how their favorite players are performing.  A perfect example of this principle is Starcraft 2. The game isn’t pretty, but all of the necessary information is clearly displayed on screen.  When two armies fight, the viewer can see their composition, the moves they’re making, and their success or failure.  The display also shows player army size, resource pools, and ongoing upgrades.  Compare that to an unmoded FPS where the viewer can only see the game from the viewpoint of a single player.  They can only ever understand the game from a single, limited perspective and so will miss out on the broader progress of the game and interesting events not viewed by that player.  It would be like watching a football game from the helmet of a single player.

Limit downtime

Speaking of Starcraft 2, it showed the importance of getting into the action quickly.  Before the most recent expansion, most games started with major dead time until the players could develop their economies and armies and start engaging.  That period was, to be blunt, boring.  Time that isn’t showing something entertaining is time the viewer might disengage.  Some downtime is require in games, but long stretches of it should be avoided at all costs.  Esports games are fundamentally an entertainment product.  They should strive to be as entertaining as possible across the most time as possible.

Balance Intelligently

One of the things every developer learns about every game they make is that their audience will inevitably do something unexpected with their game.  Players will run into bugs, sneak into areas they shouldn’t, and apply unforeseen tactics.  For an esports game, the developer must accept that they will a) never anticipate all the strategic permutations of their game, and b) regularly balance those tactics throughout the life of the game.   The first point necessitates the second.  Invariably, competitive players will pick apart your game and discover an abusive strategy that will dominate the field.  Without balancing, that’s all fans will see and they’ll get bored.  Even beyond preventing single method victories, intelligent balancing helps keep the game fresh.  By subtlety tweaking different aspects of gameplay, the developer can encourage pros to innovate new strategies giving fans something new to see.  With all this being said, I included “intelligent” for a reason.  Balancing can fundamentally alter how the game is played.  Without applying intelligence, care, and precision, the developer can create new dominant strategies or prioritize less entertaining ones.  Balancing is incredibly difficult to do right.

 

Production values for viewing

With increasing production values across the many developing esports games, it’s no longer enough to have a scruffy fan shout out what’s happening in a game.  From the casters, to the environment, to the game overlay, esports need strong production values to appeal to new audiences.  Appearing jumbled or confused will only push potential fans to better organized options.  Furthermore, the back end needs to strongly support the whole operation.  Lag, computer crashes, and event disorganization only add dull downtime that will turn off fans.  They want to see the game, not watch casters try to fill time while techies figure out the latest failure.

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Opinion – So you want to make an esports game?

Instant success in just a few easy steps!

The incredible rise of esports has encouraged imitators to develop the next great game.  If they succeed, they could follow in the steps of Riot Games resulting in massive, stable profits for years to come in an ever changing industry.  Fail and the game joins the scrap heap of imitators which are doomed to be forgotten except by a few devoted souls.  That being said, successful esports games seem to range across a number of different genres making it hard to know why they succeed or fail.  What follows is a collection of commonalities I have noticed in popular esports games.  As I wrote this, I discovered this article is really a two parter.

 

They’re accessible

Think of the most successful esports games.  DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, etc.  The one thing they all have in common is that they’re free to start.  In theory, every player can get to the top of the rankings without spending a dime.  In reality, successful players probably spend some money, but the games only ask for payment after the player is hooked.  They also don’t require a super expensive computer to run.  These two factors dramatically reduce the cost of trying the game which significantly broadens the player pool.  One of the most important aspects of a high level competitive scene is having a group of fans large enough to both play the game at a high level and to enjoy watching it.  The lower the barrier to entry, the easier it is for players to join, and the more likely the game will reach a critical mass.

The skill ceiling is sky high….

The competitive players that make up the competitive scene in a game want to feel rewarded for the considerable time and energy they invest in the game.  They want to know that improving their skill will result in greater success on the battlefield and leaderboard.  A high skill ceiling ensures that devoted players will always have another step to climb and that the best players will rise to the top.  With a low ceiling, the best players will ultimately settle at the same level thereby stagnating their progress and turning competitive matches into either a crap shoot or a foregone conclusion*, depending on how the skills are capped.  This both frustrates fans who want to see diverse strategies and prevents the development of a skilled cadre of players.  Individual players and teams can’t stand out if everyone performs the same at a particular level.  This prevents the creation of reputations and brands that fans identify with and which invest the fans more into the game.

…, but the bottom end is fun too.

Let’s face it, most of esports game players suck.  They aren’t reaching incredible levels of mastery.  Hell, they probably aren’t getting out of the single player campaign or fighting bots on stupid mode.  Even so, these are the people who an esports developer need to watch games, root for players, and buy merchandise. To encourage old players to return to the game and new players to join in, the game can’t be so difficult that only the masters can play.   They also serve as the foundation from which eventual pro players arise.  Low skill players won’t just fill in the bottom rung of the competitive pyramid, they’ll also fill in every successive rung thereby providing aspirants with a path to the top.  The fewer people who enjoy a game, the fewer people who will pick it up and the lower quality the eventual pros will be. Finally, having fun at the low end makes the high end more relatable.  Fans have a hard time appreciating the skill of a player unless they’ve tried to accomplish the same thing.  By making the low skill end of a game entertaining, the developer is also allowing fans to discover what they love about their favorite game.

 

And that ends part 1.  See you next week in part 2.

 

*If the game relies heavily on random outcomes, then the winner of a match between equally skilled players is usually the player with the luckiest roles (think poker).  When the game has a low skill ceiling and little randomness, then both players know the outcome and can predict every move (tic tac toe).

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Review – Ratchet and Clank – PS4

What was old, is new again.

Do you remember when the consoles were flooded with friendly cartoon characters who ran, jumped, and flew through a wide array of environments?  Do you long for collectible hunting before it became synonymous with open world, GTA style gameplay?  Insomniac has got you covered.  With the HD rerelease of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, the glory days of mascot platforming are on display for all to see.  It’s a happy return.

The story begins with Clank, a defunct Blarg warbot who discovers plans to attack planet Novalis.  Clank escapes the Blarg only to crash land near Ratchet, a furry cat like creature with mechanical talent and dreams of saving the galaxy.  Together, they team up to defeat the Blarg and save the day.  The story is about as straightforward as I’ve presented it with only the occasional stabs of humor to set it apart from your average kid’s cartoon show.  There isn’t much here to draw in adults and the plot largely serves as a vehicle to move the player from one planet to the next.  While a game like this doesn’t need a strong story, there are moments where Ratchet and Clank’s narrative feels like a missed opportunity.  A number of characters almost use pessimistic humor before they pull away from truly amusing territory.  It happens enough times that it feels like the writers wanted to go one step further before someone stopped them.  That’s a shame, because humor would have greatly livened up the proceedings.  As it stands, the story is functional.

The gameplay is where Ratchet and Clank shines.  The game has the platformer’s usual array of jumping puzzles, but the addition of clever weaponry helps it stand out.  Ratchet has a wide array of guns which can level up through use and benefit from upgrades purchase with a special material called raretanium.  While the leveling scheme encourages the player to constantly swap weapons, the usefulness of each weapon makes the experience a delight.  Each gun has its own value, but no gun is powerful enough to work in all situations throughout the game.  The powerful sheepinator turns enemies into sheep without requiring ammo, but is ineffective against bosses.  The groovatron turns the battlefield into a dance floor, but doesn’t hurt larger enemies much.  Taking full advantage of Ratchet’s arsenal is one of the true delights of the game.  Sadly, the Clank sections are less so.  Clank relies on puzzles based on minibots whose many forms help him overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player interested and they break up the gameplay, but they never really satisfy like Ratchet’s shooting sections.  They are also sometimes accompanied by Clank’s hints which repeat incessantly annoying players who are enacting the solution and those who already heard the clue and wish he would just stop.

One of the joys of the Ratchet and Clank series is the vibrant, cartoony environments.  The HD remake only enhances their quality and brings the fuller vision into view.  The dynamism of the original level designs stand out with many of them taking place on an active battlefield or bustling cityscape with the attending side fights or zooming cars creating the atmosphere.  None of the environments are technical or stylistic stand outs, yet they’re so well-crafted that they’re incredibly fun to explore.  Beyond the environment, character models are sharper, colors pop, and the tiny details from the original game stand out more.  My only grip is the tiny letters, though that is likely a function of my smaller TV.  The game is a lot of fun to watch.

The rerelease adds a few features, but it’s the original game that truly draws in the player.  Developer Insomniac understood that this is a game that doesn’t need fixing and only made minor tweaks.  If you own a PS4, I highly recommend dropping some cash on Ratchet and Clank.  You’ll enjoy it.

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